For a group whose music seems to sit entirely outside of time, it is interesting to know that when recording their new album Your heart, it carries the sound, Last Harbour “wanted the album to come from somewhere, to be linked with a time and a place”.
The Manchester based expansive collective create songs “From dusty laments to doom-filled rock, from starkly beautiful duets to drifting clouds of looped noise, the only claims they make for their music are that it is honest and heartfelt.” This is what it says on their website, which is a good place to begin exploring their aesthetic.
You only need to be a few pages in to realise, that while music is the aural element of the art produced by Last Harbour, they actually create so much more than just a set of songs. As lead singer Kevin Craig explains “that was one of our aims, right from the writing process – that the album would be a complete work, rather than a collection of songs – and that the place of writing and recording would have an effect on everything.’
On their homepage you are greeted with the beautiful, technical heart illustration that is printed on the cover of YHICTS. This graphic but delicate symbol, complete with valves, ventricles and veins, sits emitting sound waves like a 1940’s radio tower. The site is mainly monochrome, as is the video for ‘Never’, from the album, that also welcomes you. This transmits an effectively filmic quality. It places the band in a context – not of record shop shelves, promotions and tickets – but of darkened movie theatres, long, lonely train journeys and late night woodland walks.
Musical inspiration ranges from Medieval to Neu! (‘More Bowie’ was a regular instruction from co-producer, Sam Lench, during the making of YHICTS). Yet you feel that film, possibly, plays a larger inspirational role for Last Harbour. Lead singer Kevin Craig very much appreciates “the way cinema creates a mood that you can be immersed in”. Last Harbour have created an album that very much mirrors this quality. Craig explains, “film has always been a pretty big thing for us. People like Bela Tarr or Tarkovsky. They’re often touch-stones that we come back to.”
Consequently, YHICTS, very much feels like a soundtrack to your life – at the times you take it most seriously. As Craig says “lyrically, I always think of the songs as films, they play out in that way for me.” The album very much evokes the indulgent boredom and longing of teenage cigarettes out of windows far away from home. It makes you feel like you are an adult, with a very old secret to think about during a long unsleeping night.
The reason for such encouraging introversion is because, as well as the cinematographic atmosphere they project, Last Harbour transports your awareness to the hear and now. Listening to YHICTS you are acutely aware of the attention to detail that the band has paid to every part of the album’s creation. Craig perfectly sets the scene, “it was written in a small cottage in Northumbria. It was pretty isolated, just a road, a reservoir and woods. We’d worked that way with the previous album ‘Volo’, and there’s something about removing yourself from your everyday surroundings and bringing a sense of location to the writing process.”
Unsurprisingly this is what the album itself does to the listener. Craig continues, “we moved the furniture out and set up our equipment and played, fairly intensely the whole time we were there. The idea of a sense of place was then carried through to the recording. We knew that we wanted to record with a fairly live sound, to preserve the feel of the cottage, and to have the location of the recording effect the songs. So along with Sam Lench, we set up in St Margaret’s Church and used the building’s natural reverb and resonance within the songs.” Their focus certainly encourages the listeners.
All their attention to process and the intricacies of their artistic production aid a sound that is unsurprisingly difficult to catagorise. Previous attempts to place a pin into it include “swooning dustbowl baroque”, “funeral pop” and “classic outback brooding”. Last Harbour really burst such definitions. This isn’t because they experiment with vastly opposing genres, but because they allow themselves to organically stray into whatever sounds suit their content. From the chamber-esque ‘Catherine rising’ to the frowningly sardonic ‘Replacements’, Last Harbour sweep through styles like they are pulling leaves from the trees they pass as they walk through the wood.
Central to this is Kevin Craig’s definitive baritone voice. Directly compared to both Nick Cave and Ian Curtis, it is actually much richer and more ruminative than both. It is the central cog around which their sound revolves or the reel into which they thread their film. This enables them to explore different styles and sounds while maintaining a strong aural narrative.
Recording and producing YHICTS, Last Harbour took full advantage of this. As well as their usual instrumental line-up, a variety of analogue synths were introduced (a musical dream for a synth-head like me). Also, as intended, the location influenced many of the sounds they sourced. As Craig explains “the church organ was used (although it was out of pitch, with broken valves). We ended up using the sound of it being turned off. Sam used the building and microphone placement to capture the odd reverberations. My personal highlight of recording was beating a 7-foot length of metal ducting with my fists for three minutes. We wanted a really harsh metallic sounding crash. It ended up sounding fairly physical.”
The entire album has a very physical quality; from the heart emblem on the cover/website and associated materiel, through the sounds they use into the very physical and human themes they explore. As Craig says “how we wrote the album did become an element of what the album is about. So, I think the sense of being isolated and how you deal with that is kind of thematic throughout. ‘If You Mean To Be Lost’ came from our walking deep into the woods around the cottage and how dreamy and distant that felt. While other songs are a little more like camp-fire stories or older, folklore affairs.” This explains how Last Harbour seem to stand outside of time while simultaneously encouraging your consciousness into the immediacy of life around you. Their themes are very human and timeless.
YHICTS is like the hybrid lovechild of Film Noir with ‘The History of the World in 100 objects’. Their songs successfully play out like films (in which you feel you are living in real-time). Last Harbour then further extend the experience, in which you can fully, artistically immerse yourself, by creating a physical album that is a real delight. “The idea with the artwork for YHICTS was to create an object, which could be explored, with maps, photographs and fold out elements.”
Emphasising the attention to detail paid throughout, Kevin explains, “making the physical album was always important. We wanted something that was hand crafted and fairly bespoke, to match what we had done in the recording process. Something we had made.” The result is a beautiful, matt black parcel of musical wonderment – when you open it, you very much feel like Amelie Poulin does upon discovering the tin in her bathroom.
The cover, (a black diagram of the heart emblem and a golden schematic of an oscillator), was designed by Craig. He explains how “the sleeves were created for us by Eco-Craft, then every one was letterpressed – by hand – by David at Hotbed Press in Salford. It was a painstaking, back-breaking task, by all accounts. The inserts were also letterpressed, card folded to create an envelope, maps of the recording space and a unique photograph of the church added to each package… We felt that if someone was going to buy this album, we should make it as beautiful as we possibly could.”
They have certainly succeeded in this. Your heart, it carries the sound is a complete experience, from unwrapping the album to listening to it (on repeat, window open, red wine in hand). Right to the final track, “This is how we disappear”, attention is paid to enhancing the listener’s experience. It begins with a music box playing from another century and concludes with, whispering over vinyl crackles, “an Iranian film director (I forget his name right now) talking about his approach and inspirations. It’s a simple and interesting mantra that we can all relate to: ‘Everything is poetry’”.
Your heart, it carries the sound is a powerful, beautiful and deliciously introverted experience of an album. You connect with it physically, so it feels like the film score of your life. Considering its melancholic, reflective tones, Last Harbour have produced an album that is fantastically encouraging and ultimately uplifting. You feel it is a treat to participate in what they have made. As Kevin Craig concludes, “I’ve always felt that all of the artwork and design aspects are entirely part of the music. Ultimately, it all comes from one group of people. Anything we create as part of that group is an extension of the music. And we really enjoy it.”
This article first appeared in Blankpages
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